We’re getting near the end of the year, and teachers are talking about who needs to repeat the grade. So let’s talk about grade retention and how it really affects children. Many parents, teachers, principals, legislators, and members of the general public hold the strong belief that the best way to make sure that all children learn in school is to retain those who don’t meet grade level standards. There is absolutely no evidence that this is true. Let me say that again: There is absolutely no evidence that this is true! Hundreds of research studies show that grade retention does not help children at all. In fact, retention hurts children. Here are the facts, paraphrased from a paper I co-authored with some other school psychologists.

-Retention does not improve academic achievement over time. Children who are retained in elementary school do better the next year (when they are reviewing everything), and maybe for a year or so after that. Then their achievement falls to the same level, or even lower, than other children who also struggled academically, but were promoted to the next grade. It doesn’t make any positive difference in the long run.
-Retaining children in kindergarten or first grade is not more effective than retention in later grades. “The gift of time” does not work. It’s an educational myth. The vast majority of children who are referred to me for academic problems have already been retained in kindergarten or first grade. And when I ask an older child what grade they’re in, the most common answer is, “I’m in x grade, but I’m supposed to be in y.”
-Children fear being retained. It is very traumatic and embarrassing to have to repeat a grade, and children experience emotional distress.
-Children who have been retained are at much higher risk of having behavior problems, substance abuse problems, low self-esteem, low motivation, and a negative attitude towards school. These problems often don’t surface until middle school or high school, when being “old for grade” can result in all kinds of social and behavior problems.
-Retention is the most powerful predictor of who will drop out of high school. One retention, even in the early elementary grades, greatly increases the chances that a student will drop out. If a student is retained twice, the likelihood of dropping out is almost 100%.
-The students who are most likely to be retained are poor children, minorities, males, and disabled children. These are the same students who, in many cases, already have two strikes against them at school. So instead of helping them with better and more intense academic instruction, we punish them by retaining them. It doesn’t make sense.
-Many more children are being retained now than were retained ten years ago. In my state, the retention rate has climbed from 3% to a little over 5%.
-Retention is extremely expensive, because the state pays for an extra year of school for every child who is retained. In my state, it currently costs about $7500 a year to educate a child in public school. American taxpayers are spending billions of dollars each year for an educational strategy that has no basis in fact. Wouldn’t it make sense to spend those billions on academic programs and materials that are proven to be effective?

In most states you can’t refuse to have your child retained — it is the school’s decision. If the teacher or principal tells you that your child is at risk of being retained, though, you need to state your opinion, ask some questions, and find out what you can do to help. Here’s an outline of an effective plan of action:

-Tell the teacher that you do not want your child retained if at all possible. State the facts about retention — that it doesn’t improve academic achievement and actually harms children.
-Ask what steps you can take to avoid having your child retained, and follow the teacher’s suggestions. Things like tutoring, going to summer school, or attending after-school remediation programs can really help, and teachers appreciate it when parents are willing to go the extra mile. If the problems include attendance or homework, you need to strengthen and follow your evening routine, homework routine, and morning routine.
-If the teacher has medical or mental health concerns, follow up on those concerns. Make the doctor’s appointment, get the eyes checked — whatever it takes.
-Ask the teacher if she suspects that your child has a learning problem, and if she does, ask her to start the process to have your child evaluated at school.
-Write down the plan and ask the teacher to reconsider retention. Follow through on your part!

Teachers often don’t realize that retention is such an ineffective strategy. They’re full of tales of children who did so much better after being retained. There are two reasons for this:
1.Teachers see the child the year they are repeating the grade, and maybe the year after. In other words, teachers view the results of retention during the brief time that higher achievement often occurs. They don’t see the child three or four years down the road, or when the child is a high school student.
2.There are certainly a few individual children for whom retention seems effective. We can’t predict who those kids might be, though, and it takes years to really know.

Children who are least harmed by grade retention tend to have certain characteristics. They come from strong families who help with the emotional distress and embarrassment that retention brings to children. They have at least average intelligence, and they have good social skills. And something different happens the year they repeat the grade — they receive special services or a different kind of instruction. I would personally consider retaining my own child if he had missed lots and lots of instruction because of illness or an accident. The only time it makes any sense to retain a child is if all the information indicates that the child can be on grade level by the end of the retention year, and will never drop below grade level again.

The bottom line on retention is that it doesn’t raise academic achievement, but it does harm children. All the research supports those two claims. It doesn’t help and it often hurts. Protect your child if you can.


Our very own education specialist Alice Wellborn is now a regular contributor at and we are thrilled to share her wise words with all of you. Alice is a school psychologist and the author of the amazingly helpful book No More Parents Left Behind. Get the book at:
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